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It’s a rip-off: now bootleg logos are a fashion must-have

New designers are using copyrighted logos with impunity while high-fashion houses such as Balenciaga are dabbling in downmarket irony


Fashion

The Observer

It’s a rip-off: now bootleg logos are a fashion must-have

New designers are using copyrighted logos with impunity while high-fashion houses such as Balenciaga are dabbling in downmarket irony

Lauren Cochrane

Sat 30 Dec 2017 21.00 GMTLast modified on Sat 30 Dec 2017 22.00 GMT

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Model and designer Michelle Song seen in New York wearing a Vetements DHL T-shirt this summer.Photograph: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Forget cocktail dresses and crocodile “It bags” – among key style trends now are T-shirts that wouldn’t look out of place on a market stall.

Earlier this month the buzzy catwalk brand Balenciaga released its spring/summer advertising campaign. The key reference point? Not the rarified inspiration that could be expected for such a storied fashion house but a humble carrier bag for German supermarket chain Edeka. The yellow and blue colours of the store’s branding was reworked with the phrase “The Power of Dreams” and a Balenciaga logo.

This is just the latest example of the trend for fashion labels to use existing branding in their designs to make something that has the look of a bootleg. Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia has advocated this idea, first with his own brand Vetements. The label produced a much-discussed T-shirt in 2016 with the DHL logo on it which sold for £185. Gvasalia followed it up this year with a $2,150 (£1,606) bag for Balenciaga that looked remarkably like Ikea’s 50p Frakta bag.

Others are also playing with this idea. Menswear designer Christopher Shannon produced a collection for autumn/winter using well-known sports brands. The Timberland logo was reworked to say “Tumbleweed” while in previous collections Shannon changed the Sports Direct logo to “Lovers Direct”. Off-White, the label by trendsetter Virgil Abloh, repurposed Nike’s iconic tick on T-shirts with the word “logo” above it, as well as using the logo for People magazine as a handbag. Fashion powerhouse Gucci even parodies its own bootlegs. A sweater that resembles a bad counterfeit, with Gucci replaced by “Guccy”, is now for sale on the site for £950.

This is mirroring a trend that is also happening at street level and on social media. Smaller streetwear brands are using branding to make visual gags that have impact on Instagram. The Nike tick is popular. Sports Banger, a label based in Tottenham, north London, uses it on a T-shirt that combines the NHS logo with the Nike swoosh. Bristol Street Wear, meanwhile, was behind last summer’s ubiquitous Jeremy Corbyn T-shirt which replaced the sports brand with the Labour leader. It was worn by Grace Chatto of the band Clean Bandit, who was photographed in the Corbyn T-shirt backstage at a festival. It sold out. Bowlcut prefers the Marlboro logo, changing the cigarette brand instead to “Mandem”. It is now a bestseller for the brand.

There is a playful political angle to this trend – Bowlcut has a T-shirt that reads “Anti Tory Tory Club” – which subverts corporate culture by putting logos of mega-corporations in unusual contexts. “It’s about mocking the elite, the 1%, the career politicians, the rightwing media, and we love poking fun at the royals,” says Joe from Bowlcut, who does not offer a surname, to stay anonymous. “It’s nothing personal, we just make what a lot of young people think.”

Christopher Shannon based his CK T-shirt on bootlegs he saw growing up in Liverpool when the logo was repurposed so it read “DoCKers”, to support the striking dockers. “I think using a motif to carry a message is interesting,” says Shannon.

These T-shirts also take in a nostalgia for the 1990s, when streetwear brands such as Fuct frequently played with logos recognisable around the world, like that for Ford cars. Shannon references bootlegs found on market stalls as a teenager. “We called them jargs, which means fakes,” he says.

Streetwear label Sports Banger mixes two famous contemporary logos for one of its T-shirts. Photograph: Sports Banger

This nostalgia also plays out particularly in a sub-sect of this trend – for unofficial football merchandise. Football Bobbles, founded by Reuven Fletcher in 2016, reworks cult football kits for teams including Celtic, Chelsea and Liverpool on to bobble hats and bucket hats. Eighteen86 , meanwhile, is an online store for unofficial Arsenal merchandise, created by Max Giles and Ed Fenwick, with archive images of Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Paul Merson. Both of these labels focus on the era when millennial customers were growing up. “I asked friends about the classic kits that resonate,” says Fletcher. “A lot of it is about looking back to the 80s and 90s.”

As with the streetwear labels, there is an air of resistance here – one that appeals to the football fan who doesn’t want to give more money to Premier League clubs by visiting the gift shop. “Soulless is a good word for the official merch,” says Giles. “It’s bland and represents [how] everything is sanitised.” The duo were inspired by the stalls of unofficial merchandise that used to line streets near Arsenal’s old Highbury ground when they went to matches as children.

Neal Heard, author of The Football Shirts Book and designer of the Lovers FC football shirt range, thinks this trend is to do with fans reclaiming their club. “There is definitely a looking back, but I think it’s to a time when they could last see the club as theirs,” he says. “For years we have loved our clubs and not worn anything they produced. Now you can make what you wish they would have in the club shop.”

Using an existing logo or branding in a different context does run the risk of legal action but, according to Julie Zerbo, founder of website the Fashion Law, many of these – particularly at the high-fashion level – have the look of a bootleg but are actually collaborations with brands’ permissions. “Vetements worked with DHL, and Off-White received permission from People to use their logos,” she says. “Otherwise, these cases would almost certainly be instances of actionable trademark infringement.”

Christopher Shannon’s Lovers Direct T-shirt, on the catwalk this year. Photograph: Estrop/Getty Images

Conducting most of their business through social media means these labels can grow by word of mouth while staying under the radar of the larger corporations – be it brand or football club – to which they are paying homage.

Joe from Bowlcut and Giles and Fenwick say they haven’t been asked to stop producing their designs. Even if the homage is blatant, the brand in question might turn a blind eye these days. Zerbo refers to the Vetememes raincoat produced by 22-year-old Davil Tram in 2016. Rather than issue a lawsuit, Vetements released a statement reading “Vetements will not be filing any lawsuits over the Vetememes raincoat and hope that he has enjoyed making his project as much as we do making our clothes.” “It fits within their brand ethos and [Vetememes] is probably not a large enough threat to merit the potential media fallout of litigation,” says Zerbo.

Neal Heard believes that this shift to collaboration will continue. “When I did my label White Riot, in the 90s, we did rip-offs of Nike, Adidas...” he remembers. “We sold them in Liberty and were issued with cease-and-desist letters.

“Now, we’d be offered a collaboration.”

Topics

  • Fashion
  • The Observer

  • Balenciaga
  • Vetements
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